Sunday, September 18, 2016

Movie Journal: August

Wendy and Lucy
I'm somewhat late on this month's movie journal on account of work, and since I'm going to be spending much of the next week traveling and going to comedy shows, I thought I'd better write this now otherwise I'll be writing about films I saw in August in October, and that isn't a good look.

August was easily my weakest month for movies this year. Due to a hectic few weeks, I only managed to squeeze in 20 films throughout the month, one of which was Suicide Squad, far and away the worst film I've seen so far this year, and one of the most miserable cinematic experiences I can remember. I already spent two whole episodes of Shot/Reverse Shot talking about why it's terrible in and of itself and representative of everything wrong with blockbuster filmmaking, so let's leave it at that.

I also re-watched Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons for the first time in about a decade and it was roughly ten times better than I remembered. Admittedly, I remembered it being really good, but I didn't remember it being brilliant (until the tacked on happy ending, which is hilariously obvious and ill-fitting). It's easy to obsess over the fact that it's an incomplete work because swathes of it were cut and destroyed over seventy years ago, but focusing on the lost masterpiece that no one living has seen can only distract from the masterpiece that we actually have. It also reminded me of how much I enjoy the scene in The Squid in the Whale in which Jesse Eisenberg tries to impress a girl by bragging about having only seen stills of the film, a scene I think of very often because it's not a million miles away from what I was like as a teenager.

Right, let's get down to business. Here are the ten best films I watched for the first time in August.

1. Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight, 2016)

A stunning work of visual storytelling from Laika Studios, who seem hellbent on keeping stop-motion animation alive regardless of whether or not anyone wants to watch it. In telling the story of a young boy who goes looking for magical items in a mythic version of Japan, Knight and his team have fashioned a beautiful story about loss, aging, and the nature of memory which is also hugely exciting - the battles between Kubo and his companions, a talking monkey and a giant beetle/samurai, and an assortment of magical horrors outdo all others when it comes to action choreography this year - and often very funny. Possibly my favourite Laika film, though considering the competition it's a pretty close call.

2. Green Room (dir. Jeremy Saulnier, 2015)

Saulnier's last film, Blue Ruin, was my fifth favourite film of 2014. While his follow-up doesn't quite hit those heights, in part because it doesn't have the meta-commentary aspect to it, it's still a thrilling and unbearably tense thriller that takes a simple premise - a punk band, led by the late Anton Yelchin (man, that feels weird to type) are hired to play a gig for neo-Nazis, stumble across a murder scene, then find themselves trapped in the club's green room as the aforementioned neo-Nazis, led by Patrick Stewart, debate the best way to kill them - and wrings every drop of blood out of it. The cast are great, Saulnier makes the most out of the enclosed setting, and there are more than enough outbursts of bloody violence to shore up his standing as one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working today.

3. I Don't Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman (dir. Marianne Lambert, 2015)

I've been watching a lot of Chantal Akerman films ever since her suicide last year made me realise what a colossal blindspot her work was for me. I'm very glad that I have, because she is fast becoming one of my favourite filmmakers, with an unmistakable, hypnotic aesthetic that continues to amaze and intrigue me. That effort at self-education made me especially receptive to this affectionate and surprisingly thorough account of Akerman's life, work, and aesthetic. It covers a huge amount in less than 70 minutes, more so than most documentaries of this variety, as it touches on most of her major works over her four-decade long career. As good as it is at providing an overview of her oeuvre, it's perhaps strongest as an illustration of her curious spirit and adventurousness as a filmmaker, aspects of her personality which also come to the fore in the interviews, which were conducted around the production of her final film, the haunting No Home Movie.

4. Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichhardt, 2008)

I'm such a hopeless dog person that I had to watch this drama, in which Michelle Williams plays a young woman (i.e. Wendy) barely scraping by as she travels to Alaska with her adorable hound (i.e. Lucy) in tow, in installments over several days because I was so afraid that something bad would happen to Lucy. Something bad does happen, in the sense that Wendy gets arrested for shoplifting and then can't find Lucy when she gets out, and that heartrending separation is the crux of a stark examination of what it takes to get by in America when you have no money and your car breaking down is a life-or-death disaster. Williams is fantastic as Wendy, giving what would be a career best performance if she wasn't so consistent wonderful, while Reichardt's typically loose approach to storytelling fits nicely with a plot about someone being lost and desperately looking for some certainty.

5. From the Other Side (dir. Chantal Akerman, 2002)

Bleak and poetic doc about the experiences of different undocumented immigrants at various different stages of their journey from South America to the United States in search of a better life. The stories are pretty much all heartbreaking, but Akerman's unflinching, staring camera does little to exploit their pain and memories. Instead, she lets those experiences speak for themselves as they relay stories of brutal hardships, false starts, lost family members, and constant, unremitting tragedy, all in search of a slightly better situation than the one they left behind.

6. Incident at Loch Ness (dir. Zak Penn, 2004)

This mockumentary, in which Werner Herzog, playing himself, travels to Scotland to make a movie about the Loch Ness monster, was an oddity when it came out, and it's even odder now. On the one hand, it's strange to think that Zak Penn, who at the time was a screenwriter with a few hits under his belt, would help shape the Marvel Cinematic Universe by writing early treatments of The Incredible Hulk and The Avengers, but prior to that he was palling around with Werner Herzog. More importantly, it's a film which makes fun of Werner Herzog's public persona years before he had one. Or at least before he was well-known enough for people to impersonate him, cast him in sitcoms, or have him voice aliens obsessed with penises. It would make sense if this movie was made in 2016, when "Werner Herzog" the comedy character has been firmly established, but it's strange to think that someone would make a movie about that back when he was almost solely the domain of cinephiles.

Conceptual weirdness aside, it's a very funny film about clashing egos, artistic hubris, and the insanity of Hollywood. It just so happens that all of those elements are transplanted to Scotland, which makes the whole thing even funnier.

7.  The Body Snatcher (dir. Robert Wise, 1945)

Robert Wise turned his hands to so many different genres over the course of his career that he isn't really associated with any of them, even when some of those films (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music) ended up defining those genres for a time. I now believe that horror, which he revisited a few times, was his strongest genre, not merely because he directed The Haunting, a revered classic, but because he also delivered weirder offshoots like the brilliant Curse of the Cat People and this campy delight. Apart from some decidedly un-Scottish accents (perhaps best described as Scot-ish), this is a deliciously macabre story of grave robbers and doctors set against the backdrop of post-Burke and Hare Edinburgh. Boris Karloff is great as the unscrupulous grave digger, elevating every scene with his particular kind of extravagant gravitas.

8. Way Out West (dir. James W. Horne, 1937)

I believe that this marks the first time that I have ever watched a Laurel and Hardy film from start to finish and it was lovely. Funny and genial, a great showcase for the chemistry between the two. Their dance sequence is delightful, while Laurel's prolonged laughing fit in one scene veers from funny to demented.

9. The Man From Laramie (dir. Anthony Mann, 1955)

A little shaggier than other Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations, but still a gorgeous, stark and intense psychological Western in which Stewart gets embroiled in the affairs of a small town while trying to find out who sold guns to the Apaches who killed his brother. It gets even more complicated from there as Mann weaves a tale of greed, betrayal and obsession, ripe with Oedipal overtones, set against the unforgiving backdrop of the frontier.

10. River of Grass (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 1994)

In telling the story of a housewife (Lisa Bowman) who goes on the run with a petty crook (Larry Fessenden) when they think they've committed a murder when they actually haven't, all while barely leaving Miami, Reichardt may have made the most Florida movie ever. Certainly the young Fessenden, with his greasy hair and dirtbag mystique, would have been the only choice to play the lead in a Florida Man adaptation. Reminiscent of Barbara Loden's Wanda, but with far less drinking, it doesn't quite square its crime-comedy elements with its exploration of a young woman's ennui, but it's a striking and entertaining debut that lays out a lot of the style that Reichardt would refine over the next two decades. Its deliberate shrug of an ending is also one of the more '90s things I've seen in a while.